How civil society is protecting forests and Indigenous Peoples’ rights in Congo – Fern

Nina Cynthia Kiyindou is a lawyer, and head of Natural Resources and Forest Community Rights at Fern’s partner, Observatoire Congolais des Droits de l'Homme (OCDH). OCDH was created in Brazzaville in 1994 by a group of journalists, lawyers and teachers, with the aim of promoting human rights, the rule of law and democracy in Congo. Nina works with forest peoples and Indigenous communities promoting their collective rights, and has been with OCDH since 2008. Before then, she was a consultant and researcher specialising in Indigenous Peoples’ laws.

Here she outlines how OCDH is tackling the deep-seated, complex problems many forest communities face when conservation and logging operations arrive in their areas, as vividly highlighted in Laudes Martial Mbon’s accompanying article.

Q: How did you come to work on the challenges facing Indigenous Peoples and forest communities?

A: Initially, OCDH wasn’t interested in forestry issues. Its mandate was solely to promote and defend ‘classical’ human rights. But our work on Indigenous Peoples’ rights began when we then published a report in 2006 in which the extent of the problems communities faced - particularly from the forestry companies - was strikingly evident.

Q: What are the biggest challenges Congo’s forest communities face?

A: One big challenge for Indigenous Peoples and local communities, is that they cannot effectively participate in forest management and forest processes. Forest management is at the local level. The forest processes are the Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPA), Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+), Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) and the Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI).

Communities don’t have effective access to protected areas. There is a law on wildlife and protected areas that protects the rights of use, but it’s not enforced. There are many conflicts between forest communities and the agencies that manage the parks.

People rely on these areas for non-timber forest products (NTFP), including game and bark, leaves and bones.

Securing customary land rights is another big hurdle for communities. Beyond customary rights, the law requires registration [land titling] and imposes various conditions. The challenge for communities facing complex and unjust laws, is comparable to the land grabbing phenomenon, which emanates from forestry projects, as well as mining, agro-industrial and infrastructure ventures.

When a company signs an agreement with the state, it must take certain measures in favour of the communities. The implementation of these obligations requires regular monitoring. But many companies make social obligation commitments but do nothing. And communities have a real problem in tracking these commitments.

Another problem is the management of Local Development Funds (LDF): they are only present in developed areas. It is a profit-sharing mechanism where the company collects 200 Central African Francs (0.3 Euro) per cubic meter of timber and pays it to the LDF. Normally, communities can tap into this fund to carry out economic activities, but it is very difficult for them to develop projects that meet the FDL's requirements. Funds are also widely misappropriated.

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